Since the dawn of the human race, a few people have managed to become its leaders. In Oslo’s Frogner Park, there is a famous monolith sculptured by Gustav Vigeland that portrays the mad race to the top of the heap. It reminds me of a game played in grade school called “king of the hill.” The challenge was to be on top and to push all others down.
We can only guess how chiefs, earls and kings came to be. My theory is that local chiefs have been around from the beginning through charisma, physical force or election. The early Vikings had their chiefs, but sometimes these men called themselves “kings.” In pagan times, dynastic kings made their claim to power as descendants of the gods.
This was the case for the “Yngling” rulers of Norway to which the present royal family traces its roots. They came out second best in a power struggle in Sweden and went to Norway over a thousand years ago. In Christian times kings claimed to rule by divine right.
No uniform rules were followed in all of the Scandinavian countries, but there were some basic patterns. The local chiefs were there first and coexisted with the coming of later royalty. There was tension between the “blue bloods” and those who rose up through local struggle.
The foreign kings, conscious of their divine origins, felt that ruling was their right and that armed struggle for power over the local chiefs was justified. The families of royalty became a wealthy aristocracy. Becoming wealthy was the “bottom line.”
In Denmark, the local chief was called a “straesman” (helmsman), a term used for a ship’s captain. When they worked together, they had great power and even elected kings. In the assemblies of free men (“things”), the leaders were called “hethwarthae maen” (men worthy of honor). They were called “lendsmen” (sheriffs or bailiffs) in Norway.
I discovered that there was a lendsman in my family tree almost 500 years ago in western Norway. However, at that time they were “king’s men,” and not chosen by the people. The straesmen were enforcers and were called a “hird.” It was expensive to maintain such a group and their dependents. Bishops also maintained hirds.
During World War II, the traitor, Vidkun Quisling, called his bodyguard a hird.
In Sweden, the king’s farm was called a “Husaby” (a house-village). It was run by the king’s “bryti” (steward or bailiff). In Norway, the title was “hersir” (landed man or “herr”) was equivalent to a baron in England. In Iceland, the local chief was called a “godi,” a name strangely similar to “god.”
Iceland never had kings or national leaders. The godi was selected from families of distinction, likely from the earliest settlers (A. D. 870-930). All free men in Iceland were attached to a godi.
The earls (“jarls” in Scandinavia) were among the country’s most distinguished chiefs. Birger Jarl was one of Sweden’s most famous rulers. King Harald Haarfagre appointed a jarl in each “fylke” (county) of Norway to insure his rule.
The title king, (“konungr”) means a man of noted origin. Kings came from particular families and had to be elected by an assembly of free men with the title conferred in a recognized ceremony.
An especially powerful king, however, might force a Thing (assembly) to elect him. The election involved an agreement by the king to provide military protection and sacrifices to the gods for a bountiful harvest, while the electors promised loyalty.
Crop failures and economic depression were blamed on the king. If a series of droughts occurred the king could be sacrificed to appease the gods. He was subject to the law and not above it.
Christianity greatly changed the idea of kingship. It claimed that the king’s authority had to come from God as mediated by the church. A king could not rule without the approval of the church. This was in direct opposition to the earlier Scandinavian practice of election of kings by the chiefs and free men.
It took about two centuries for the hierarchical practices of the church to overcome the ancient Norse customs.
In the Christian period, crimes against the land became acts against the king, since he claimed all the land. The Danes and Norwegians resisted these centralized encroachments against the authority of the local chief, but the power of the church prevailed. The kings had to enforce the tithe and see that Peter’s pence was sent to Rome.
The most successful kings were great orators. They had no public address systems, so loud voices were an asset.
Norway’s most remembered kings, Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldson, were missionary Vikings and ruled only a total of 20 years. Most of the kings did not live to become old. Few of them reached the age of 40. King Magnus is supposed to have said, “A king is for glory, not for long life.”
The kings who came from foreign lands with the claim that they had been born to rule threatened the chiefs who rose up from the people. To this day, royalty remains a unique race of people who may not even have last names.
I, however, came from peasant stock of free men who gloried in being equals. My “republican” (Latin: res pulica) and “democratic” (Greek: demos) prejudices have never felt the need for royalty as known from the past. I’ve got too much Old Norse love of freedom in my blood.
The present royal families of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, however, are a new kind of royalty whose commitment is to serve their countries. They are remarkable people and of great value to their nations. I’m proud to honor them for their dignity and noble services to the lands of my family’s heritages.
Next week: “Everyday Life in the Viking World”